Aversion Therapy is “Like A Visit To The Dentist”


The London Medical Group held a symposium on Thursday November 2nd. The subject was aversion therapy, a two-part course on Punishment and Treatment. One member of the Gay Liberation Front, Peter Tatchell, went along to the meeting to challenge the psychiatric abuse of lesbians and gay men by two of Britain’s leading psychologists. This is his account of what happened:

Professor Hans Eysenck and Dr. Isaac Marks were the speakers at the symposium on Aversion Therapy and Patients’ Freedom, held at St. Thomas’ Hospital.

Professor Eysenck is one of the world’s leading “psycho-Nazis”, advocating theories on the nature and treatment of homosexuality that sometimes came close to echoing those of Nazi leaders, such as Heinrich Himmler. Much favoured in establishment and psychiatric circles, he is a leading exponent of aversion therapy. In the numerous books he has written, homosexuality is variously associated with perverse, abnormal, unnatural, neurotic and criminal behaviour. He has consistently advocated the use of aversion therapy to cure what he sees as sexual perversion.

Dr. Marks is a Senior Lecturer and Consultant Psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital and is known for his research into and application of aversion therapy.

Interestingly, because of the subject’s controversial nature, and perhaps because the organisers feared disruptions, the LMG took the unprecedented step of closing this particular lecture to members of the public, but I succeeded in smuggling myself past security.

During the symposium there were no speakers against aversion therapy- those who spoke in favour of its use being famous psychologists of high repute in the medical profession. The chair of the meeting repeatedly commended Eysenck and Marks, praising “these great men” and their outstanding contributions to psychology.”

Professor Eysenck began by emphasising that there was “no relationship between aversion therapy and punishment….it does not involve sadistic motivations…..Neither does aversion therapy seek to act as a deterrent. The fact is that aversion therapy is used for the patients’ own good.

Challenging his statement that aversion therapy was used “for the patients’ own good”, I interrupted the lecture, citing cases of people who, since undergoing aversion therapy, have become chronic depressives.

Somewhat taken aback by this dialogue- as opposed to the intended monologue- Prof. Eysenck continued “Aversion therapy is only undertaken where it is of the patient’s own choice.”

Interjecting again, I mentioned the cases of gays who are virtually blackmailed into undergoing aversion therapy when it is offered by the courts as an alternative to prison. Those who “voluntarily” undergo treatment are “forced” to do so by the intolerable oppression of homosexuals by society. Remove the oppression and no gays would ever volunteer.

I also raised the question of homosexuals being induced to “volunteer” by an exaggeration of the success rate and the playing down of the pain and discomfort involved.

Nervously continuing, Prof. Eysenck outlined the principles of aversion therapy, which, he explained, were based on Pavlov’s experiments on conditioned reflexes. He said it was “used to change the emotions, where the person cannot change them of his own free will…. By associating emotion with pain or fear, the emotional response can be re-conditioned.”

Then he went on to explain how, in the case of homosexuals, nausea was induced by drugs, whilst the patient viewed films of homosexual acts. Thus the patient learns to associate homosexuality with pain and fear. He mentioned that, whilst photographs are used, the actual performance of the sex act would be preferable.

He stated that “There is a success rate of 50 percent, which justifies its use as much as any method.”

I challenged him to substantiate his claim of 50 percent success, describing how most homosexuals who have undergone treatment have remained totally “uncured” and become asexual “vegetables”. I offered these failures as an explanation of the decrease in the use of aversion therapy over the past two years.

Prof. Eysenck suggested that “50 percent success was better than no success at all.”

I questioned his ends justify the means mentality, and his use of the success rate to justify the continuing practice of aversion therapy. Prof. Eysenck then argued that the therapy hardly merited concern as it was used so little.

To quieten any fears, he reassured his audience that the pain and discomfort is greatly exaggerated and, in fact “It is just like a visit to the dentist….It is no different from any other form of therapy.” He went on to describe psychoanalysis as far worse than aversion therapy and entailing greater distress to the patient.

Prof. Eysenck finished by enthusiastically declaring that “there is no ethical principle involved in aversion therapy that is not involved in any psychological treatment.” (applause, applause).

The second speaker, Dr. Isaac Marks tried to dispel any doubts which my interjections may have raised by citing the film “A Clockwork Orange”. He asked how many people had seen “A Clockwork Orange”- most of the audience indicated that they had- and then he asked how many had actually seen aversion therapy- three people had. Satisfied that few people were in a position to question his authority, he said that “A Clockwork Orange” was a totally inaccurate, exaggerated portrayal of aversion therapy.

Outlining the circumstances under which the medical profession was entitled to use aversion therapy, he suggested that this should be when the “patient asks for help” or when “society asks to be relieved of the burden of an individual”. This second criteria has frightening implications. It could be used against any minority incurring social disapproval- not just gays, but also political activists and others.

To justify this criterion, Dr. Marks drew a very questionable analogy. He said “For instance no-one objects when people with smallpox are quarantined…or that sadists and murderers are removed from society.” On the basis of this analogy he justified the use of aversion therapy on the individual where it was “in society’s interest.”

Unable to allow such a statement to pass unquestioned, I demanded to know how homosexuals could in any way be compared to smallpox carriers, sadists or murderers. This intervention plunged the symposium into chaos.

Amid the uproar, I attempted to point out that the use of aversion therapy “in society’s interests” could so easily be abused.

Receiving broadsides from the podium and the audience alike, I was asked to leave by Dr. Marks- which he promptly refused to do. Stepping back and returning to his seat, he said he would not go on whilst I was in the room. Ten heavies then surrounded me and I was violently assaulted as they dragged me from the symposium.

The parting comment from the chairman was that I had spoiled the whole lecture. Needless to say, he had never thought of the many homosexuals who have had their lives spoiled by aversion therapy.

This is an edited version of an article which was published in Gay News No. 11, 1972

© Copyright Peter Tatchell, 1972. All rights reserved.